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With themes ranging from the occult to murder cases, I'd never heard of 'dark prog' until I got chatting to the staff at Genoa's Black Widow Records.

Another early import from the UK, the Genovese record store and label are named after the original protagonists of the genre and are nuturing many of the important bands from the scene...

By ProgBlog, Jan 29 2017 08:18PM

One of my Christmas presents was Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. I’d added it to my wish list within the previous month, seduced by the very fitting looking cover (a watercolour illustration by Nathan Popp in the style of Roger Dean’s crash-landed and colonised mountains from Yessongs) together with some four and five star reviews on Amazon.com, there being no reviews, at that time, posted on the UK site. Though there wasn’t a great deal to be gleaned from the reviewer comments, the publicity quotation sounded promising: Progressive rock is maligned and misunderstood. Critics hate it. Hipsters scoff at it. Yes is the Answer is a pointed rebuke to the prog-haters, the first literary collection devoted to the sub-genre. Featuring acclaimed novelists Rick Moody, Wesley Stace, Seth Greenland, Charles Bock, and Joe Meno, as well as musicians Nathan Larson, and Peter Case, Yes is the Answer is a book that dares to reclaim prog-rock as a subject worthy of serious consideration.


Yes is the Answer
Yes is the Answer

The book is a collection of short essays by respected journalists, writers and musicians, each relating a personal progressive rock story in an almost ProgBlog-like manner, only I’m rather ignorant of US writers. It‘s a slim volume which fits the hand nicely and the quality of the paper used for the dust jacket is very pleasing. However, the standard of writing plummets immediately after a rather brilliant opening disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent. These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.


It’s not that I think it has limited literary merit; I instantly disagreed with the opinion of Weingarten in his introduction that the progressive rock fan fraternity frowned upon the exponents of jazz fusion because of their propensity for ‘noodling’ and that fusion adherents were sad for their obsessive appreciation of the instruments used to make the music. On the contrary, Brand X were a successful jazz fusion act who were fully appreciated by the prog rock crowd and, speaking as someone who came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk, part of the attraction for me was the ability to obsess over the instrumentation, because without the technological advancements the music would never have been created. I'm responsible for reproducing the console of a mini-Moog on my desk at school when I was 13 and later, when I first started work after university, spent a lunchtime in a local music shop playing a Mellotron 400D. I'm sure many would agree with me that the best album sleeves are those which list the make and model of all the equipment used to make the record.

I know that there have been factual inaccuracies in my blogs pointed out by readers, but my pieces are mostly opinions, streams of consciousness posted without any proof-reading. When I come across an unchecked fact in a publication (Jerry Lucky repeatedly calling David Gilmour ‘David Gilmore’ in his 20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock, new copies of which are selling for £68 on Amazon in the UK, or Dave Ling writing in Prog magazine that the opening chords of Watcher of the Skies were played on organ, for example) it offends my sensibility.


20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky
20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky

Imagine my indignation when the first article, Here Comes the Knife by Seth Greenland states that Rondo (by The Nice) is on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. No, it’s on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Why hasn’t anyone picked this up before it went to the printers? This lack of attention to detail is un-prog but it soon becomes clear that many of the contributors discovered this music at the tail-end of the golden period or later, that the majority of them have not remained fully committed to the genre and that their views have more often than not been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs. There’s no doubt that marijuana was the recreational substance of choice for some of the artists but many eschewed drugs either through ascetic lifestyle choice or because of the technical difficulties of playing a piece made ingestion unwise. The book highlights the American experience which is very different from the UK where progressive rock developed; traditionally, rock ‘n’ roll has been romanticised in a very Hollywood way as a rite of passage, a time of teenage rebellion. Progressive rock didn’t really fit into this scheme, because the exponents were attempting to legitimise their form of rock music, with Keith Emerson building bridges between the worlds of classical and rock and all of them were looking at other idioms to expand their musical vocabulary. This is what they exported and a small number of them did well in the US, the music and underlying philosophy chiming with a nascent ecological movement and a general feeling of hope. There were only a few proper progressive rock acts from North America during the golden era (Happy the Man and Fireballet spring to mind, those being bands with albums in my collection, but I think what I’ve heard of Starcastle who received air play on Alan Freeman’s radio show in the UK might also include them in that small club) and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. The short biography after each essay reveals a dearth of specialist music magazine contributors; if you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age presented in a sex and drugs and rock and roll context, you may like this book and the high-scoring reviews from Amazon US make perfect sense. However, there's nothing analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their emotional development have come across prog.

One of the articles is by British author Nick Coleman who was an NME journalist and has written a well regarded autobiography The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after suffering sudden neurosensory hearing loss – totally devastating when your livelihood revolves around music. Though progressive rock evidently played a major part in his youth, his essay Hung Up on these Silver Strings (a line from the song Axe Victim) concerns Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe isn’t prog but fit in to the closely-associated Art-rock sub-genre. A vehicle for the talents of Bill Nelson, the band was favoured by prog fans and dutifully, though I don’t own any of their studio releases, I bought a copy of Live! In the Air Age in lieu of a ‘best of’ album.


Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe
Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe

Part of the attraction for me was that Nelson was a northerner, forgiven for being from the wrong side of the Pennines, from Wakefield. The follow-up band Red Noise created an interest within my circle, possibly because they played Leeds University where my brother Tony and another of my associates were studying medicine but I wasn’t too impressed by Furniture Music, not really liking the shorter songs or the electronics. However, I did go to see Bill Nelson performing The Invisibility Exhibition at the Dominion Theatre in March 1973, an enjoyable gig where Nelson played guitar, synthesizer and percussion to backing video from 1950s art films. Shortly after that I purchased a copy of his solo album Quit Dreaming and get on the Beam, written as a second Red Noise album but held back by EMI because they didn’t like it. This is an album of clever electro pop but I had been under the impression that it came with a free LP called Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), a basic, home recording straying into ambient electronic territory, and that’s what I was really interested in.


Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition
Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition

Nelson may have been the recipient of Prog magazine's Visionary award in 2015 but I still regard him as an exponent of Art-rock. Another Art-rocker, who has had a much heavier involvement with prog, is Brian Eno; these are the only two representatives of this form in my collection. From his Roxy Music beginnings, Eno branched out into progressive pop territory and collaborated with a wide range of prog luminaries on his accessible solo albums. This directly led to involvement with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and he also assisted on the Mainstream album Quiet Sun with former band-mate Phil Manzanera. His experimentation with tape loops and twin Revox tape recorders in collaboration with Robert Fripp for the ground-breaking (No Pussyfooting) began before the release of Here Come the Warm Jets and though dismissed at the time, it is now rightly regarded as a seminal piece of music. What makes Eno stand out is his way of thinking; from the bed-stricken origins of Discreet Music to the entire ambient genre where his modus operandi, subscribing to systems that once set into motion require little or no further input from Eno himself and divulged in the sleeve notes of Discreet Music, still hold true to his output today, neatly exemplified by his Bloom iPhone app. Musical collaborations and pathfinding aside, Eno was appointed the youth affairs adviser for the Liberal Democrats in 2007, at the age of 59. He’s also interviewed Yanis Varoufakis for The Guardian and caused something of a stir last week when a Guardian interview with him ran under the headline “We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink”; he was obliged to clarify that he thinks Donald Trump is a complete disaster.


Prog and Art-rock obviously have a degree of crossover but the latter has always been more respected by mainstream media. Part of this is inherent re-invention along the lines of fashion, whereas prog is deemed to have ossified, like a lumbering dinosaur without an original thought in its head, being wiped out by the brash, brightly burning punks. Prog resurfaced and, since the mid 1990s has been going pretty strong. That books like Yes is the Answer are being published is testament to its longevity.

By ProgBlog, Jun 5 2016 09:39PM

It wasn’t until I began to examine the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, in association with reading the essays written by Robert Fripp and printed in the sleeve notes of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to and certainly during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and furthermore, taking on a new act that wasn’t quite so successful wasn’t so much of a risk when there were some big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.

At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc that might give some more information about the music; the green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) and Relayer (1974); the green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, representing the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake and Animals (1977) has a fish eye lens dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the replacement for the Vertigo swirl, with the UFO-like spacecraft and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white, and the closely related image, without the lizard, for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline. My only copies Vertigo albums on vinyl are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spaceships and all my albums on Virgin had a coloured logo which, by the time of Ommadawn (1975) had shed the lizard and was simply a stylised photo of the mirror girl.


I quite quickly recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull; I had all three of the Isotope studio releases but never realised that it was a label associated with Morgan studios because Isotope (1974), Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) were recorded at Advision, Rockfield and Trident respectively.


The only label that came anywhere close to indicating that their bands were all worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My second hand copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo and my Five Bridges, bought new, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost everything else I have on the label on vinyl features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith and, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward. Almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own label and shops, Threshold); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA also had a short-lived specialist label, Neon, only ever releasing 11 albums, all in 1971 but which included the only, self-titled album by Tonton Macoute (very much on the jazzier side of prog), the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring and the proto-prog of Indian Summer with their eponymous album.



One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but which were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco to UK and US consciousness and followed in the footsteps of the Moody Blues and Threshold Records, a sub-division of their old label Decca, formed in 1969 following the release of On the Threshold of a Dream. Manticore, named after the chimeric creature that appears on the sleeve of Tarkus pre-dated Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.


Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.


King Crimson were signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via distributors (independent) Island Records and Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke that was founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, including albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp described as unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.


It would appear that the industry has changed. There may be only three majors now, after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts, but the progressive rock community has witnessed to some innovative ways to release records, from the crowd-funded financing of Marillion to the founding of a progressive rock-specific label, Kscope, with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music. I always thought it was worth reading the label...







By ProgBlog, Aug 5 2015 09:10PM

The skies over Croydon last Friday night (31/7/15) were cloud-free and, despite the light pollution from the streets, the ‘blue moon’ was really clear. I’m something of a fan of astronomy and as a youth members of the Infield Park Gang (IPG) would venture off to watch meteor showers from the vantage point of a local school playground, lying down so that the town’s sodium streetlights were obscured by the surrounding trees, or heading off to the ruins of nearby Furness Abbey, nestled in the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade where the night skies were so dark it could be quite hazardous walking up Manor Road in the direction of Yarlside; we used to frequent The New Commercial in Newton (now The Village Inn) at the top end of the derelict iron ore mine workings, a free house where the beer was excellent and the juke box contained a reasonable selection of prog and prog-lite, possibly where I first heard Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush.

The term ‘blue moon’ is a bit of a misnomer and a bit confusing. The moon reflects the sun and appears yellow-white as normal but the name, which had been documented well over 100 years before the popular definition ascribed by amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett in 1946 was simplified to indicate the second full moon in a calendar month. The lunar cycle of 29.5 days means that Pruett’s blue moons occur seven times every 19 years; the original name derives from the Native American Algonquin, who gave names to all full moons throughout the year and introduced the Blue Moon, the fourth full moon in a single season, as a way of maintaining their lunar-calendar month alignment. So is an event described as ‘once in a blue moon’ rare? With an occurrence of once every 2.7 years they are certainly infrequent...

The moon is highly symbolic with multiple meanings and interpretations, primarily based on observations of its regular cycle; the brightness of the full moon waning to complete darkness at the new moon and waxing again to the full moon. At a very basic level the constant regular appearance, growth and subsequent disappearance can be interpreted as a symbol of life, death and rebirth. The reflectivity of the moon – the albedo (as in Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis, the reflectivity of the earth in 1976 when the album was released) – averages at 0.12 due to the changes of brightness linked to different lunar phases and gives rise to the notion of the moon as a mirror that reflects the mystery and fear within our souls.

The common association of the moon with femininity comes about because lunar cycles were thought to mirror the life of a woman, a representative of the Triple Goddess; her three incarnations of maiden, mother, and crone were matched with the lunar phases of new, full, and old so that the complete triad of goddesses is symbolised in the changing face of the moon. Another reason that the changing moon is particularly associated with women is because the regular lunar cycle closely matches the menstrual cycle. The English word month is derived from the Anglo-Saxon monath, from mona, the moon; menses is from the Latin mensis, meaning month. This once more brings to mind Kate Bush who not only injected literacy into the pop world but featured a song about menstruation, Strange Phenomena, on her debut album The Kick Inside (1978). The space rock of early Gong, most notably Camembert Electrique (1971) which features the so-called space whisper of Gilli Smyth strikes me as feminine, if we’re allowed to attach gender to music, an opinion possibly influenced by the inclusion of the track Selene - the Greek goddess of the moon; also, the influence of Gong on Steve Hillage, even after he’d left the band in December 1975 along with girlfriend Miquette Giraudy, may have been partially responsible for Lunar Musick Suite (from L, 1976.)

With the plethora of possible interpretations, the moon makes a number of appearances in the prog canon, from the straightforward interpretation of the moon landings on Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), a documentary film that was originally shown without narration, simply featuring footage of the Apollo space missions with Eno’s predominantly dark ambient soundtrack, to the moon as a symbol of reflected self in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon where every day pressures can lead to madness. Eno has indicated his album is intended to be an exploration of space travel, not some kind of adventure film soundtrack and I think the moods he successfully creates somehow tap into the idea of expanding the human experience, something that has acted as an inspiration for some of my own ambient music (Lunar Surface Magnetic Anomalies, 2013.)

Camel’s Moonmadness (1976) might not seem to be a conceptual piece of work on first hearing, certainly not in the Dark Side mould, but moon references recur throughout the album. The short first track Aristillus is named after a prominent lunar impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium and features drummer Andy Ward reciting the names ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’, the latter being a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus. The obvious moon reference is the track Lunar Sea (hence Moonmadness) which is one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. The alternating guitar and keyboard leads are understated and beautifully melodic, giving the track a great balance; the Moog tones evoke the ebb and flow of a cosmic ocean and Ward’s drumming is neat and crisp while Doug Ferguson’s bass bounces and bubbles. Even the heavy Another Night gets in a lunar reference: “Dark Clouds before my eyes / Can’t face the morning skies / Day comes a day too soon / I’m waiting for that silver moon” but Camel had set out to avoid a concept album in the style of Snow Goose after pressure from their record companies; if Moonmadness has a loose concept it’s that four of the tracks are said to represent the members of the band: Chord Change is Pete Bardens; Another Night is Doug Ferguson; Air Born is Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is Andy Ward.

Another moon link is on Mad Man Moon from Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail (1976) though I don’t think it’s really about madness or the moon, just an obsession with what others have: envy. I’ve racked my brains trying to find some link between the lyrics and the title of the song, other than in the line of the chorus, but Tony Banks sticks pretty much to drought/flood imagery. I recall Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act 2 scene 2: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” but, despite the allusion to lost love, I suspect I’m way off the mark.

The moon represents mystery but the moon landings, coinciding with the rise of progressive rock, may have resolved some of the unknowns. This has encouraged prog to delve deeper into the cosmos.



By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2015 10:12PM

A forty-year anniversary passed last month that I hadn’t realised until I watched my The Gates of QPR, Yes at Queens Park Rangers Stadium (volume 2) a couple of days ago – a concert recorded on the 10th May 1975 and featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards even though there’s a picture of Rick Wakeman on the back sleeve. The set list for this DVD is really good and the sound quality is mostly good, too. It’s quite interesting to see Steve Howe using a double-neck 6 and 12 string Gibson for the opener, And You and I, whereas in the studio he used a 12 string acoustic guitar and I’m sure I’ve seen him play an acoustic instrument when I’ve seen Yes play live. There are a number of entirely reasonable practical reasons for using an electric guitar in this context which doesn’t really detract from the feel of the performance but I believe the original studio instrumentation is an important part of the make-up of symphonic progressive rock.

One of the core features of symphonic prog is the broad sonic palette utilised to produce sweeping musical visions incorporating a range of different moods. The listener’s interest is maintained by a number of devices including changes of tempo, changes of time signature, chord changes and changes in amplitude. This compositional complexity is what appeals to me because it makes the music less formulaic and more likely to capture my imagination, transcending the verse-chorus-verse-chorus of the boy-meets-girl pop song and allowing the musicians to relate long stories or explore philosophical issues. Different instruments or electronic patches, often outside the remit of mainstream popular music, don’t only add an exotic flavour but may represent a particular narrative thread; Camel’s Snow Goose uses this formula but Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written for a children's theatre is the best example. Prokofiev invented the story and wrote the narration, constructing the music as a child's introduction to the orchestra, with each character represented by a different instrument or group of instruments: Peter by the strings, the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by the horn section, and so on. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a number of prog luminaries, including Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and Robin Lumley, should collaborate on a rock version of the Prokofiev classic.

The main exponents of acoustic guitar passages include Yes, Genesis, Focus and PFM. I’ve not included Jethro Tull in this list because Ian Anderson’s guitar is primarily used as strummed or picked chordal blocks, intended as backing for electric guitar, keyboards, flute or a vocal melody line. I’m also not including the brilliant John McLaughlin because his playing falls within the jazz and jazz-rock contexts but, from the progressive world, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Jan Akkerman and Franco Mussida are all masters of their craft, allowed to display their virtuosity within a group context though their solo work often shows how different genres have influenced them. Steve Howe’s Beginnings (1975) and The Steve Howe Album (1979) feature a range of examples of the different styles that have been key to his development as a guitarist. Early Genesis featured up to three members strumming guitars and the arrival of Steve Hackett didn’t change this too drastically, though his playing over the top of 12 string guitar, like on The Return of the Giant Hogweed, (from Nursery Cryme, 1971) is far more confident than that of the undeniably talented Anthony Phillips. The first real clue to what inspired Hackett comes in the form of Horizons (from Foxtrot, 1972) and I had the good fortune to see him on his acoustic trio tour at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon in 2005 which featured most of the same set and was played by the same musicians, Hackett, his brother John (flute) and Roger King (keyboards) appearing on the box set Hungarian Horizons Live in Budapest (2002) and formed a sort of prelude to the classical covers of Tribute (2008). Jan Akkerman’s study of the lute made an important contribution to both Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974).

The rise of prog coincided with an interest in classical guitar pieces, notably concertos written by Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos – I recall buying my sister Linda an LP of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos sometime in the mid-70s – and this fascination was cemented by the Stanley Myers piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, which defined the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter. John Williams had been involved in crossover projects in the past but along with long-term collaborators Herbie Flowers on bass and tuba and drummer Tristan Fry he formed Sky after recruiting fellow Australian guitarist Kevin Peek and former Curved Air man Francis Monkman on keyboards. I was never a fan of Sky who I considered to be prog-lite, appended to the genre by journalists and critics even as it faded. It may have been the insipid rendition of Toccata that featured on Top of the Pops in 1980 that confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for the project.

A good place to look for acoustic guitar-rich prog is Spain. As part of my preparations for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2010, I researched Spanish prog bands and record shops and, on arrival, set out to find music by Triana (regarded as the best of Spanish prog), Iceberg and Gotic. In the end I had to buy a download album by Gotic, the upbeat, instrumental Escenes (1978) which sounds like Greenslade with flute but I did manage to find two releases by Iceberg, the symphonic prog Tutankhamon (1975) and the jazz-rock Coses Nostres (1976) and the first three Triana albums El Patio (1975), Hijos del Agobio (1977) and Sombra y Luz (1979). El Patio (The Backyard) is quite accessible, setting out the Triana stall of traditional flamenco mixed with progressive rock and referencing an LSD trip. I find it interesting that almost the entire album was written by keyboard player Jesús de la Rosa rather than guitarist Eduardo Rodríguez Rodway; electric guitar and bass were provided by guest musicians. Spain was just emerging from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco when Triana were becoming established and Hijos del Agobio (Children of the Burden) is darker and more political than its forerunner but this style of music, blending flamenco and keyboard driven symphonic prog and initiated by Triana, has its own sub genre, Andalusian rock.

The trio of albums by Gordon Giltrap beginning with Visionary (1976) moved the artist away from his folk roots and, with the aid of an electric guitar and a good backing band, create some excellent prog that features a good mix of electric and acoustic-based songs. Perhaps Giltrap thought that the folk sphere limited his outlook, rather like the strictly classical guitar field when you compare it with the potential audience that listens to rock. There’s a rich vein of early, classical and romantic music that can be used as a basis for prog compositions which can challenge the player and listener alike. Symphonic prog successfully taps this repertoire providing variations in tone and volume and, possibly most importantly, a link to pastoralism.



By ProgBlog, Apr 5 2015 06:53PM

Around the time of the double trio King Crimson incarnation, Jim Knipe and I went off to see Robert Fripp performing soundscapes in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. This attendance was fairly hastily arranged because of respective work commitments such as on-call and the Saturday 9th March was deemed to be the most suitable of the potential dates on offer, Fripp being in residence at the QEH for four days from the 7th to the 10th including what was due to be a marathon session on Saturday 9th, as part of a series of events billed as ‘Now You See It’. Strangely enough, Crystal Palace were at home to Jim’s team, West Bromwich Albion that afternoon, with Palace running out winners 1-0 and legend Dougie Freedman scoring the sole goal; this predated our arrangement to attend Eagles v Baggies and Baggies v Eagles reciprocal home fixtures by some years, when West Brom and Palace are playing in the same division.

I’m a fan of Fripp’s soundscapes. I’ve got (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, which I regard as early, lo-fi examples of guitar and tape loops which marked the beginning of Frippertronics (a term coined by Fripp’s girlfriend at the time, Joanna Walton). Though I don’t own either God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980) or Let the Power Fall (1981) I do have the Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980 which some believe contains the first examples of proper Frippertronics. I’ve charted their evolution from the original collaborations with Eno, through solo album Exposure (1979) and the 80s incarnation of Crimson to the work with David Sylvian, The First Day and the live album Damage (both 1993), that presaged the double trio King Crimson of the 90s. The calm, dreamy Bringing Down the Light from The First Day was probably the earliest recorded example of Fripp’s modern take on the soundscape; my collection ends with the four track CD EP Pie Jesu (1997) which contains material from A Blessing of Tears and The Gates of Paradise. By this time, technology had become very reliable and instead of twin Revox tape decks and his effect pedal that I’d seen give up the ghost while playing with the League of Gentlemen at the LSE in November 1980, he was now using industry-standard TC2290 dynamic digital delay modules from TC electronics.

The late 70s and early 80s saw Fripp embarking on a number of intimate solo performances in off-beat venues, in the guise of a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’. This modus operandi was revisited in the mid-90s with the new technology and resulted in a series of releases that sadly aren’t currently available (though a series of more recent compilations are readily accessible); these shows were sonically and physically disparate from his playing in a group context. In Crimson he migrated out of the front line, remaining in the shadows but he was entirely out of sight when I went to see Peter Gabriel at the Liverpool Empire in April 1977 performing his first solo tour, until his introduction as ‘Dusty Rhodes’ when he appeared to take a bow. As a solo performer, whatever the ambient lighting, he was always in the spotlight and the perceived barriers between Fripp and the audience were rendered insignificant. Fripp was able to trigger loops and delays and leave his ‘stage’ from time-to-time, blurring the lines between the distinction of guitarist and listeners. On http://www.dgmlive.com/rf/index.htm?group=bleeping&bio=true Fripp writes “The Soundscape performances are part of an ongoing series which has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience.”

This interaction is one reason why the music shouldn’t be simply classed as ‘ambient’ music. The ambient tag suggests the listener is passive but it is Fripp’s stated aim to seek an interaction which may then shape the course of the event; proactive music making, with Fripp and a guitar able to make a great deal of noise should he decide to do so. These aren’t sampled atmospherics, sounds from nature or even urban background chatter but a controlled, improvised, sonic narrative that may be calming, dramatic, eerie, alarming or even jagged and angular.

The ambient genre had its origins in the 70s and could be described as a musical form with an emphasis on tone, timbral quality and atmosphere rather than a traditional structure or rhythm. To this extent, ambient music ought to have an unobtrusive quality. Early pioneer Brian Eno has said that ambient music should be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; that it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. This suggests to me that ambient music is passive and so, by applying Fripp’s description of soundscapes, soundscapes are not ambient music.

‘Ambient’ somehow seems mixed up with New Age ideas, or rather there is an association between the two through a construct of the marketing industry. Fripp’s critique of the music business is well documented, largely through copious sleeve notes that have accompanied Fripp-related releases through DGM; the corporate music world relies on consumer trends that are controlled via the medium of marketing.

Soundscapes aren’t electronica, either. This is a sub-genre I associate with sequencer pulses and (predominantly) keyboard washes. Whether intended or not, programmed sequences form the basis of rhythm, and they certainly provide a sense of drive and direction which removes them from the accepted definition of ‘ambient’. Thus Tangerine Dream, synthesizer innovators of the early 70s, are allowed to be described as producing ‘atmospheric’ music but their ephemeral melody lines that interweave with snatched, developing pulsating sequences excludes them from ambientism.

It’s the unknown direction of soundscapes that I find appealing. Some of my own improvised music using a Roland synthesizer falls into calming soundscape territory, though I have a tendency to overdub ‘natural’ sounds, rainfall, wind or waves and use reverse waveforms played over the original recording to produce smooth, soothing compositions. This is very unlike Fripp (and obviously nowhere near as good) with only his guitar and effects, conjuring angels and demons in response to his audience in an intimate, live setting. Each performance is unique and if Fripp has full recordings of his recital from March 9th 1996 (the piano-inflected Sometimes God Hides that appears on The Gates of Paradise released in 1997 was taken from that appearance) I’d very much like him to consider releasing it – the memory of standing sipping bottles of Becks watching the craftsman at work is beginning to fade.



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